Analysis of a Nineteenth-Century Text on a Twenty-First Century Problem
Stereographic image of New York Harbor, with the Lower-Manhattan skyline and a steam ship in the background
Home again! New York City” (c. 1895), The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library.

In the mass array of narratives propagating the magic that is New York City, from Whitman to Sinatra, Moby Dick’s narrator, Ishmael, does not “want to be a part of it.” He sees New York as a place of “insular” people and activity.1 He makes known through strong descriptive language that Manhattan, as an island, creates a despondent, entrapped environment. The only form of liberation to him is the sea; a vast entity of change and the unconquerable unknown. Ishmael relays that urban life and its monotony create the overwhelming feeling of depression many battle with. The sea and water however, are a form of necessary therapy to everyone at some point or another. Seen in light of the modern concept of “self-care” through escape, Ishmael’s depiction of the struggle between submission to outward forces offers a powerful commentary on mental health.

The inability to escape from any or all parts of one’s life is both a contributor to and effect of depression. In “Loomings,” the opening chapter of Moby Dick, the first line detailing the city of Manhattan describes it as “belted round by wharves.”2 The single adjective “belted” has a heavy connotation of being not so much secured, but more so stuck in place. This is one of the first appearances of the omnipresent theme of entrapment within this passage. The feeling of entrapment is further expounded in the defining of people who watch the water. “But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks.”3 Again, Ishmael’s language brings to life the common condition of working people at the time. The vast majority of people in the labor force, especially in New York, were employed in such a way where they were in fact “pent up,” “tied,” “nailed,” and “clinched” to their work. Ishmael sheds a light on similar problems later revealed by Jacob Riis in his 1890 photojournalistic exposé, How the Other Half Lives, including how the pressure to provide and survive can leave people feeling trapped within their work and responsibilities. Equally as bad, they can feel isolated, lost, and give up, as does Melville’s title character in “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street.” Bartleby’s idle ennui and how walls around him interact with his psyche, parallel with the enclosed atmosphere Melville also portrays in “Loomings.” Ishmael asks in reference to the landsmen watching the sea, “How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?”4 These green fields are environments teeming with spirit, beauty, and reason. They stimulate the mind with all things that make life just a little more cheerful. Ishmael implies that such things and places must be gone for the urban dwellers who desperately need anything close to a relief from their sorrows. And so, the water is the only thing they have left to turn to.

Water is a magnet to those who seek escape from their morose lives. That is a belief Ishmael holds, especially relevant to his own emotions. He tells how when there is “nothing particular to interest [him] on shore” thus he runs to “see the watery part of the world.”5 There is something about the fluidity of water that attracts him. Maybe it is how water is constantly moving, or how it is uncontrollable by man and how everyone must submit to, and be humbled by, its power. The difference between submitting to the power of the sea and submitting to the pressures of society is that, with the sea, no one person is above another. Thus, water is both admired and feared. Ishmael specifically touches upon its magical qualities when describing how there are “thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries.”6 However, many of those who dream live in fear. Dreams are desires, but to give into them means to break from the current pattern of life. If one does that, will everything they had before be the same? What will happen to those who rely on them? Will it not be the same as they imagined? Such cyclical thinking is why “they must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling.”7 Fear of water also has just cause according to Ishmael. As said before, there are reasons to fear overthinking, but one must also be fearful of overlooking the flaws in their dreams. Ishmael invokes the story of Narcissus, acknowledging that the infatuating virtue of water is equivalent to the image Narcissus sees: Both are unattainable ideals that can potentially be one’s demise. He concludes that what people see in the water “is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”8 Here, Ishmael admits that his adulation of water is a psychosocial flaw. It is wrong to believe water and whatever escapism it offers is the answer to all of one’s problems. Everyone is haunted in some way by the life they wish to have, hopelessly chasing happiness.

In a way, escape is also a form of therapy almost everyone turns to at some point. Ishmael says, “If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”9 Nature has a purifying quality necessary to the soul. It also has a dream effect that further stresses discontentment on land and in the city. The ocean offers a blank canvas for the reveries of man where he can get pleasantly lost in his thoughts and desires. Ishmael repeats, “As everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever.”10 In this he means that water correlates with meditation because both are a healing form of solitary escape from the world. They play off one another with the same calming effect. In a more dramatic form, water can save a man’s soul. Ishmael sees two ways out from his depression; he can liberate himself from the confines of the city and feed his desires at sea, or permanently end his suffering all together. He states that the ocean is his “substitute for pistol and ball.”11 This is a very powerful statement. Suicide is a serious idea to contemplate and his declaration of the sea as his savior is important. In this way, Ishmael exemplifies how powerful he believes nature can be. He also demonstrates his own efforts to help his mental state and not let external forces take over.

The way Ishmael portrays isolation can be confusing. It can be interpreted as both a driving force of depression, and a form of alleviation. In terms of isolation being a feeling caused by the draining effect of the city, Ishmael stresses the fact that it is not uncommon, even if it feels that way. While many look out at the water, yearning to escape their feelings of unfulfillment, they are seemingly unaware of the multitudes of people around them in the same dream-like state. Ishmael calls this the state of being “athirst in the great American desert.”12 This phrase captures in a single metaphor the complexity of urban depression, in a tone that underlines how this is a common feeling in society. The desolate image of a desert paradoxically defines it all. It is not so much the image of a desert but the feeling of one that relates to the effect of city living. The main point is that in loneliness, no one is alone. Although Whitman’s cheerful attitude toward the city in “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry” opposes that of Melville’s Ishmael, they have at least one commonality. Whitman, similarly to Melville, avows that “it is not upon you alone the dark patches fall.”13 With such words, they both console their audiences with the fact that they are not the sole victims of depression.

Mental health can be a difficult field to navigate in terms of understanding cause and solution. Both are unique to each person yet shared amongst many people in some way or another. Melville’s narrator does not attempt to pinpoint exact triggers, but instead provides a common ground in urban life that many struggling can relate to. Although Ishmael sees Manhattan as a plague to the human spirit, he gives purpose to his story with the advice of putting self before all else when depression overwhelms the mind. Such a narrative is necessary to an audience trying to navigate these emotions on their own. Knowing that one’s feelings are valid and shared is crucial to bettering oneself. Expressing feelings in writing and sharing them even through a fictional character could have been therapeutic to Melville as well. Contemporary or not, dialogue on separation from society either voluntarily or involuntarily, physically or emotionally, is important for those struggling in any of these realms.

  1. Herman Melville, Moby Dick, (New York: Penguin Classics, 2002), 4.
  2. Melville, Moby Dick, 3.
  3. Melville, Moby Dick, 4.
  4. Melville, Moby Dick, 4.
  5. Melville, Moby Dick, 3.
  6. Melville, Moby Dick, 4.
  7. Melville, Moby Dick, 4.
  8. Melville, Moby Dick, 5.
  9. Melville, Moby Dick, 32.
  10. Melville, Moby Dick, 4.
  11. Melville, Moby Dick, 3.
  12. Melville, Moby Dick, 4.
  13. Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45470/crossing-brooklyn-ferry.
Back to Top